Sleep Solutions: Understanding What is Keeping You Awake

By: Mara Johnson, Research Intern

person sitting up in bed wide awake in the middle of the nightIt is no secret that the recent COVID-19 pandemic has influenced lives around the world in countless ways that have yet to be discovered. One of these new concerns that doctors have begun to document is a heavy increase in insomnia, a chronic difficulty with sleeping, and restless sleep, a seemingly universal problem. Although the research on this phenomenon is not fully established, there are many things that individuals can do now to combat these sleep issues without medical intervention. In an unpredictable and constantly changing world, it is more important than ever that health and wellness should come first. 

What causes difficulty sleeping? 

The recent COVID-19 lockdown has changed the way that many peoples’ lives operate on a permanent basis. Many return to work in uncertain circumstances, remain virtual indefinitely, or leave work altogether. Staying inside more comes with consequences to health, including limited exposure to natural light, less exercise than our bodies are accustomed to, increased screen time, and, especially for working parents, concerns and anxieties that have not existed before this point, as well as a nonexistent work-life boundary and increased loneliness. These are all things with a negative impact on a person’s circadian rhythm, which is the natural cues a body creates for when and how long to sleep (Ask the Experts, 2021). According to research from the MSU Sleep Lab, sleep can stabilize memory, help attention and retention spans, and greatly improve work performance. 

The technology problem

Increased time spent on social media can lead to more connections for those isolated members of society, however, it comes with risk of much higher risk of anxiety and restless sleep. More than three hours of news a day is directly correlated with higher anxiety levels and worse sleep, so while it is good to be aware, keep it limited to what you really need to know (Altena, 2020). Use your screentime wisely- connect to family, find distraction and relief. You should also be careful not to use phones, tablets, or TV within an hour of sleep, since blue light simulates natural light to your brain and confuses your circadian rhythm. Blue light glasses and blockers, while not bad things to have, are not enough to negate the impact of this light on your sleep schedule (Ask the Experts, 2021).  

General tips for good sleep

To get your circadian rhythm back on track, it is essential to exercise while there is still daylight and get as much exposure to natural light in the morning as possible. Exercise and natural light is how your body determines when to release melatonin, so without these cues and with the added factor of more time spent indoors, it can become confused. It is also important to your body to make sure that you are always going to bed and getting up at the same time, whether you need to or not, to set your internal clock. Establish a routine that involved things like reading, yoga, journaling to prevent your brain from becoming stimulated before sleep. If you follow these steps but are still often kept up by worry, it can help to set aside a ten or fifteen-minute period sometime during the day to write down your to-do list and address these anxieties. Leave them on the paper and away from your bed. 

Fixing a broken sleep schedule

If you do find yourself waking up in the middle of the night or struggling to fall asleep, there are still ways to get those hours back. One key practice is not to be in bed if you aren’t sleeping. It is more productive to your rest to get up and do something relaxing in another part of your home until you feel tired again, as opposed to lying in bed and watching the clock, which over time creates an association of sleeplessness in bed. The same can be applied at the beginning of the evening. Avoid exercise, caffeine, and alcohol around bedtime (Ask the Experts, 2021). You can instead practice relaxation interventions such as meditation, muscle relaxation, or taking a bath. If you do have a restless night, do not overcompensate the next day by drinking extra caffeine, napping, or going to bed early, because these will just set you up for another restless night. 
At the end of the day, we are all experiencing heightened stress and situations that are difficult to plan for. In such times, the most important thing you can do for yourself is to be patient and find out what works for you. Sleep is not a luxury but the only way for your body to replace its hormones, so do not let it fall to the backburner.